Books and reading,  History

Who are the savages?

Review of ‘Paris Savages’ by Katherine Johnson.

Published by Ventura Press 2019.

I alternated between feelings of horror, anger, shame, and sorrow, reading this new work of fiction. Through a reimagining of the fate of three Badtjala people from K’gari (Queensland’s Fraser Island) who travel to Europe in the 1880’s, the author explores the phenomenon of ‘ethnic shows’ (also known as ‘human zoos’.) In doing so, she uncovers dark stories and tragedies and prompt the question: Who were the savages?

The late nineteenth century was a period of immense excitement in the scientific world. Darwin’s theories of evolution were still being hotly debated. Naturalists, botanists, anthropologists and physicians were clamouring for opportunities to explore and examine evidence to prove various theories about race and human development. The general public was agog at stories about the people and lifestyles of those in Europe’s far-flung colonies. This curiosity and excitement, combined with an opportunity to make money, resulted in the mounting of travelling shows in which people from various ethnic groups and cultures were ‘displayed’, often alongside exotic animals and birds, exactly as we would today imagine a zoo. The human ‘exhibits’ were usually required to perform – everyday tasks such as cooking and eating food, building a shelter, or dancing and singing.

It is in this context that we meet the main characters of Paris Savages. The three Badtjala people (Bonangera/Bonny, Jurano and his niece Dorondera, are taken to Europe by German engineer Louis Muller and his daughter Hilda. The Mullers have spent six years on the island with the Badtjala, learning their customs and language. Hilda’s mother Christel has died, although she appears throughout the novel as a ghost-like presence, an omniscient narrator, a device which allows the reader to see and understand events from the Badtjala people’s perspective.

At first the little group are pleased and excited to be going, and Bonny and Hilda believe it will be an opportunity to educate Europeans about the Badtjala people and the need for better treatment of the First Australians – Bonny especially, wants to meet the Queen of England to plead his people’s case, and Hilda wants to fulfil her mother’s desire to see K’gari become a reserve to allow the Badtjala to live in peace. Hilda writes in her journal:

…why we are in Europe, not just for people to discover the humanity in our friends through their beautiful music and dance but to search for the truth and humanity in themselves.

Paris Savages p.238

Hilda and her friends are to be sadly disillusioned. There are glimpses of past atrocities against the Badtjala, mirrored in the unkind or cruel treatments that begin from the moment the trio board the ship chartered to take them to Germany where their tour will begin.

Their situation hardly improves once they arrive. They are shown very poor hospitality by their hosts, housed very like the animals they are displayed beside, stared at, touched and sometimes insulted by the crowds who press in around them during the ‘shows’. Even worse, they are subjected to demeaning and intrusive measurement of their persons, in the name of science and so that ‘certificates of authenticity’ can be issued. The direct links between these behaviours by members of Europe’s scientific community and racist terms such as ‘full-blood’ and ‘half-cast’, as well as theories of Social Darwinism and the idea of Indigenous Australians being a ‘dying race’, are clear to see. It was during these parts of the novel that I felt my shame and anger rise.

Hilda, too, feels shame at the behaviour of her fellow Europeans. Her view of her father Louis begins to change, as she observes his complicity in the abuses meted out to her friends. She wonders, “Perhaps I do not know my father at all.” (p. 297) And her mother’s ghost voice adds:

I would like to tell you what I feel about Louis, this man I once knew, but I will not be distracted from my task of relaying this version of Bonny’s story, which I fear otherwise will not be told….

…I whisper the tale directly into the air so that it might reach the ears of those who are listening, now and into the future. Shhh, listen, I say.

Paris Savages, pp. 250 & 285

This is a powerful and beautiful book. The language is lyrical while it also conveys unpleasant truths. There is a lengthy author’s note in which she outlines her considerable research and historical sources. The re-telling of this period of disgraceful behaviour by some Europeans can only evoke a strong emotional response and, I hope, a vow to do better into the future.

Thank you to Sophie Hodge at Ventura Press for a review copy of the book.

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